Shein, the fast-fashion giant, hits roadblocks

Jul 04, 2023
Shein, the fast-fashion giant, hits roadblocks

It began like any other influencer trip. A carefully curated group of six content creators, representing an array of body types and backgrounds, tucked themselves into their seats on a flight and gleefully documented the perks of business class. But the destination was not a tropical paradise or swanky hotel.

“Today’s the day! We are going to China with Shein!” exclaimed Dani Carbonari, a self-described “confidence activist” in a now-deleted video for her nearly half-million Instagram followers.

They were headed to Guangzhou to visit a factory that produces clothing for Shein, the fast-fashion giant that has quietly infiltrated the wardrobes of American women, winning them over with shockingly low prices and pervasive TikTok advertising.

Over four days, the influencers — Carbonari, Destene Sudduth, Aujené, Fernanda Stephany Campuzano, Kenya Freeman and Marina Saavedra, who are described in a Shein Instagram post as “partners” — toured the city, sharing footage on their accounts from inside a sparkling clean, brightly lit factory owned by one of the brand’s manufacturing partners, plus an “innovation center” and a warehouse, along with revelations from seeing the inner workings of fast-fashion production up close.

They hashtagged their posts #Shein101, and an animation from the brand showed a composition notebook titled as such, filled with feel-good corporate language such as “supply chain empowerment programs” and a #BlackLivesMatter illustration.

Brands increasingly invite influencers behind the scenes for such trips to “tell the stories that maybe they have a hard time telling themselves,” said James Nord, founder of the influencer marketing agency Fohr Card.

The itinerary appeared engineered to address the most frequent criticisms leveled at Shein from consumers, activists and even some lawmakers: that its clothing is quickly and cheaply manufactured, with dangerous materials; that it uses enslaved person labor and child workers; and that its factories have abhorrent working conditions.

That’s not what the influencers said they saw. Instead, their videos sounded like talking points from a press release.

“The China trip has been one of the most life-changing trips of my life,” Carbonari said in a video, since deleted. She concluded: “My biggest takeaway from this trip is to be an independent thinker, get the facts and see it with your own two eyes.”

In her videos, Carbonari said she spoke to a woman who worked in the fabric department who was “very surprised by all of the rumors that have spread in the U.S.” (Shein operates some 6,000 factories in China.)

But the accusations are far from rumors. The British public broadcaster Channel 4’s 2022 documentary “Inside the Shein Machine” sent secret cameras inside the company’s factories and found that workers were clocking 18-hour days with just one day off per month, making 500 pieces of clothing per day and earning pennies per garment.

“I’m not going to lie, I really expected it to look like it does in the movies, like really dark and dingy, but I was really surprised to see each piece handled with care,” said Sudduth in a video.

“Child labor and fair wages are serious topics and were some of the q’s you guys were curious about and wanted me to ask,” wrote Ajuné in the caption of her now-deleted post. “When asking a few of the workers & employees about these topics everyone we came across was content with their salary and the idea of child labor was something they looked at me crazy for y’all.”

The backlash came quickly from fast-fashion experts who were outraged that influencers were blithely reciting the public relations spin of the controversial company. Writers Aja Barber and Cora Harrington picked apart the PR optics of the invited influencers and called it propaganda. One TikToker parodied the video by dressing in turn-of-the-century clothes and pretending she was taking a similar trip to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sweatshop that was the scene of a deadly fire in 1911. Others gathered evidence alleging that the factory was staged.

Some of the attendees turned off the comments on their posts about the trip, and even deleted their posts, but the comments continue.

“How do you call yourself an ‘activist’ while accepting brand deals/money from a corporation that is ruining peoples lives and the environment?” read one on a post of Carbonari’s.

Shein is not only in the influencer crosshairs. Two bills were introduced in Congress earlier this month that would affect its shipping costs, and lawmakers including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have urged their colleagues to scrutinize Shein. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) has made the company a focus of his newly formed Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.

Shein defended the trip, denying that the influencers were given talking points. “Shein is committed to transparency and this trip reflects one way in which we are listening to feedback, providing an opportunity to show a group of influencers how Shein works through a visit to our innovation center and enabling them to share their own insights with their followers,” a Shein spokesperson said. “Their social media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience.”

In an interview, Freeman, who has sold under the Shein X program since 2019, characterized the backlash as harassment. Since posting about the trip, she estimates that she has received up to 75 notifications of hateful messages every five minutes. “These people don’t even know me and they’re telling me to kill myself or jump off a bridge, ‘You don’t have morals,’ or, ‘You’re stupid, you’re an idiot,’” she said. “You’re the same people who say you care about humanity?”

Several people from Shein have checked in on her and the other influencers since the online retaliation began, and Freeman told them that they need to be more vocal.

Freeman said she has flagged concerns to the brand in the past. “It’s always, ‘It’s not what you think,’” she said. “I really, I just don’t know what to do. Honestly, I think about it all the time, because I get a lot of backlash for working with them.”

On Monday, Carbonari went live on Instagram, saying that she should have looked into brand more.

“Now, in retrospect, … it’s been overwhelming,” she said on Instagram. “This whole experience has caused me to reevaluate myself, my brand, and to fight even harder for sustainability options for plus-size people and just be so much more particular with who I work with, do the research that I should have done from the beginning.”

“I can take accountability for myself and my actions,” she said, “but I can’t take the fall for Shein.”

“It’s so hard,” Freeman said. “It’s kind of like someone saying, ‘Mom is a serial killer.’ And it’s like, ‘Not Mom! Not the one who makes me the cookies and gives me the hugs!’ It’s such a hard thing to believe. And not saying that the things that people are saying are not true. They could very well be true.”

The origins of Shein (pronounced “SHE-in”) go back more than a decade, but the brand as we now know it was founded in 2011 by search engine optimization specialist Chris Xu.

Over the past four years, particularly as the coronavirus forced many people to be isolated in their homes, its popularity and revenue soared as shopping online became a form of entertainment, jumping from a 12 percent share of the U.S. fast-fashion sales in early 2020 to 50 percent as of November 2022.

What made Shein different from its competitors was its speed, its volume and its low prices: $15.99 for an orange one-shouldered pleated dress; $9.49 for a pair of shorts that knock off Pucci’s wavy Italian patterns; $12.49 for a sheer pussybow blouse. (All are 100 percent polyester.)

With money from investors such as venture capital group Sequoia China and private equity group General Atlantic, Shein was valued at more than $100 billion in April 2022 — just behind ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) and SpaceX as the third-most-valuable private company in the world. Earlier this year, its valuation was reduced to $63 billion as investors became bearish about tech start-ups.

Its pricing and shipping policies gave rise to the Gen Z and millennial shopping culture we know today: disposable, cheap clothing bought in enormous quantities. Reaching the $29 limit for free shipping, which was recently lowered from $49, requires customers to buy several pieces, which helped popularize the TikTok haul video, in which shoppers unboxed their massive orders for eager audiences. If it didn’t fit, or if it fell apart or just didn’t look right, it didn’t really matter; the pieces are so cheap that customers could simply throw them away.

Unlike with Europe-based H&M or Zara, Shein’s supply chain suffered few of the setbacks that affected many fashion brands during the pandemic, thanks to its wide network of factories owned by third-party manufacturing partners.

Because of its vertical integration, Shein can churn out products at a breakneck pace. What can take another clothing business months to produce, Shein can often make in days. The company posts new products every day, often numbering in the thousands; its “New In” page currently has options such as fluffy fairycore dresses and dog sweaters — as well as $23.99 “Butt Lifter Padded Underwear.”

The volume of product on Shein’s site means shoppers can experiment with their style quickly and frequently — creating a never-ending cycle of microtrends. More clothes means more content for social media, and Shein’s SEO expertise practically meant that if you could dream it, Shein was making it.

“You don’t need 10 dresses, but it can feel nice to get a lot of stuff,” says Lakyn Carlton, a personal stylist specializing in sustainability. “I think young people, particularly, are constantly looking for some way to feel fulfilled.”

Creators such as CarltonBarberHarrington and Andrea Cheong have made Shein’s environmental and quality issues a regular target, presenting data to swing loyalists away from the brand.

A satellite image of secondhand and unsold clothing imported into Chile from Europe, the United States and Asia that has been dumped in the country’s Atacama Desert went viral on Twitter in late May, for example.

“Production has never been higher,” Carlton said. “It’s insane that this much clothing is being produced and then it’s being dumped in Ghana or the Chilean desert.”

“I’ve started to see the conversation finally going somewhere,” said Barber, who began writing about sustainability more than a decade ago and published the consumerism exposé “Consumed” in 2021. “Now more people are starting to be like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, they’re just exploiting people.’”

Meanwhile, the business model has caught the attention of lobbyists and lawmakers.

In mid-June, two bipartisan bills were introduced to exempt China from de minimis trade, a rule that allows foreign countries to avoid paying tariffs on packages valued under $800. These are the kinds of packages shipped from the warehouse that the Shein partners dutifully showed off to their followers, which would affect many customer orders. (A recent House report on fast fashion’s complicity in the Uyghur genocide said that Shein and Temu, another Chinese megastore, are probably responsible for more than 30 percent of the packages shipped to the United States under the de minimis provision.)

Earlier this month, Rubio sent a letter to his Senate colleagues demanding that they “join me in these urgent efforts to hold accountable Shein,” citing its alleged use of cotton produced in China’s Uyghur region and exploitation of trade rules.

The lobbying group Shut Down Shein, which launched in March to push lawmakers to act against the Singapore-based Chinese brand, has met with some of the lawmakers behind these efforts.

The group is composed of “a group of like-minded individuals, businesses, some American brands you would recognize, and human rights groups,” said spokesperson Chapin Fay.

Its platform may be histrionic — in big, bold letters, the organization’s website claims that Shein is “THE BIGGEST NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF” — but its efforts to highlight Shein’s problems may have come at just the right time.

Fay calls the timing of Shut Down Shein “the perfect storm,” with American lawmakers highly suspicious of TikTok — it was banned in Montana in May, less than two months after its CEO testified before Congress to address its data collection and threat to children’s mental health — and paranoia about China’s spying and surveillance.

The coalition points to what one British MP deemed “surveillance capitalism”: It collects data through customers’ social media accounts, using information about what users shop for and view to create knockoffs or cheap imitations.

This is a common fear among online shoppers — that Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa “listen” to users’ conversations and suggest products in response — but Fay says Shein’s connections to the Chinese government warrant graver concerns. “Lots of companies are doing this,” he says, “but not all companies are being accused of having ties to, or being controlled by, the [Chinese Communist Party].”

Perhaps the data collection is not “nefarious,” Fay said, “but they have not answered any questions, allayed any concerns, and this is a company that wants to have an IPO later this year.”

In response to these allegations, a Shein spokesperson said that “Shein proudly provides customers with on-demand and affordable fashion, beauty and lifestyle products, lawfully and with full respect for the communities where we operate. We categorically deny these false and baseless claims.”

It’s tough to say whether the social media backlash or the new legislation will make a difference. Shut Down Shein’s platform strikes sustainability experts like Carlton as xenophobic, and the legislative efforts don’t address the larger environmental damage of fast fashion.

Still, while Shein has attempted to rework its image over the past year — creating the program highlighted on the trip to support young designers, and setting up warehouses in the United States to avoid shipping to consumers from China — the new import bills might make its seductive pricing impossible.

Part of the continuing attachment to fast fashion, after all, is its pricing. Most shoppers do not have a sense of how much clothing should cost; the price of garments has changed very little over the past century, as the introduction of North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 made it far easier for brands that made their clothing in the United States — often using pricier union labor — to move production to countries such as China, Bangladesh and El Salvador, where labor is far less expensive, as Dana Thomas explained in her 2019 book, “Fashionopolis.” By 2012, just 2.5 percent of clothes purchased by U.S. consumers were made in America. (In the late 1970s, that number was closer to 70 percent.)

And the backlash for the influencers may be short-lived. Nord, the Fohr Card founder, says he urges creators to be careful when asked to work with a controversial brand. “It does require an extra level of diligence from the influencer,” he said.

“What’s so powerful about influencer marketing is you do feel like you have a relationship with that person. So you might understand their motivations more, you might understand the broader context of something, versus something that goes viral and ends up as a New York Post headline.”

The influencers, in other words, might be unfairly taking the blame for the ills of fast fashion — a suggestion Barber echoed.

“I also think these influencers are low-hanging fruit in a lot of ways, because it’s so obviously wrong what they’re doing,” Barber said.

“Shein is very easy to point at because of their size, because of how pernicious their marketing is through TikTok and Instagram,” she said. “But it’s time to look at a lot of people.”

Source: washingtonpost